ATLAS F1   Volume 6, Issue 49 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Zero Defect

  by Richard Barnes, South Africa

After fifty years of technical development, isn't it time the Formula One cars were not only fast but also reliable? And after the 2000 season, aren't McLaren and Ferrari so very close to achieving just that? Richard Barnes looks at what it takes to reach zero defect in F1 car construction, and why it's vital for the leaders to get there...

There's a truism in Formula One which states that the finer the engineering tolerances on a car, the faster it becomes and the more likely it is to break down. It was Lotus supremo Colin Chapman who followed the principle that a racing car should fall to pieces as it crosses the finish line - if the car lasts considerably longer than that, it is too robustly engineered, which is robbing it of sheer speed.

Colin ChampmanThis principle embodies the razor-edge of motor racing technology, balancing the self-evident need for speed with acceptable reliability. All too often, F1 teams have got it wrong, none more so than Chapman's Lotus outfit in the 1967 Championship.

In Scotsman Jim Clark, Lotus had not only the supreme racer of his generation, but also the most mechanically sympathetic driver in the field. Clark drove blindingly fast, without placing undue stress on the engine, tyres, brakes and gearbox. In the previous season, 1996, Lotus had run with the hideously unreliable BRM H-16 engine, and Clark's mechanical sympathy was credited as he guided the engine to its first and only Grand Prix win at Watkins Glen.

After a couple of races in 1967, Lotus ditched the BRM for the engine that would rewrite Formula One history - the Ford Cosworth DFV. Coupled with the elegantly brilliant 49 chassis, and the superstar pairing of Clark and Graham Hill, Lotus were the class of the field, and should have taken both Championships (Drivers' and Constructors') easily.

Once the Cosworth had been installed by the third race of the season at Zandvoort, the Lotus was never beaten again in qualifying, taking nine consecutive pole positions. But the team suffered appalling reliability. From the season's 22 starts, Clark and Hill managed only nine finishes. By contrast, Brabham's Antipodean pairing of Jack Brabham and Denny Hulme had 18 finishes. Thanks largely to reliability, Hulme took the title with only two wins and no pole positions all season.

Jump forward 22 years in time, to the 1999 season, and the same phenomenon was repeated to a large extent. Defending champion Mika Hakkinen took 11 pole positions to championship rival Eddie Irvine's none. Yet the Irishman so nearly stole the championship, thanks to almost unprecedented reliability of his Ferrari. In sixteen races, he failed to finish just once, while Hakkinen had five DNFs during the year.

It's not surprising that Irvine enjoyed such outstanding reliability in his final year at Ferrari. Since Michael Schumacher had joined the Scuderia in 1996, the philosophy had been 'reliability first, speed later'. In 1999, Ferrari achieved their goal of ultra-reliability. In 2000, they added the speed - taking ten pole positions and race wins on their way to both championships.

Schumacher inspects his ailing car, at Monaco in 1998For their part, McLaren also upped the ante without losing much in the way of performance. In 1999, they suffered nine mechanical retirements. This year, that figure dropped to just four. Contrast that with 1995/6/7 - the first three years of the Mercedes engine programme, in which the black and silver cars retired an average of around 12 times per season.

In the 68 starts between them, the Ferrari/McLaren quartet had just nine mechanical retirements in 2000. With that sort of reliability and performance advantage over the rest of the field, it's little wonder that 2000 was such a two-horse race.

The narrow limitations of modern F1 regulations have stifled the sport's innovative spirit. Ostensibly, these restrictions were put in place to ensure a level playing field where teams sponsored by corporate megabucks couldn't steal a march on the few remaining privateers, for example through the use of exotic and prohibitively expensive materials like beryllium. It's ironic, then, that the two currently dominant teams the two with the biggest budgets.

McLaren will have learnt their lesson from this season. In previous years, they had the pace to compensate for early-season teething problems. This year, they handed Ferrari a 26 point Constructors Championship lead after just two races, and never recovered from that setback. For Mika Hakkinen, the lessons of unreliability were particularly bitter. His first two failures (Australia and Brazil) came while he was leading the race, the third (Indianapolis) as he was obliterating Schumacher's hard-fought early advantage. On each occasion, arch-rival Schumacher went on to win - a 30 point swing that effectively sealed the Championship.

The moral of the story is clear - if a team wants to win Championships, its cars must be fully designed, developed, tested and 100% race-ready and reliable by Australia. The halcyon days of 1967, when Colin Chapman's Lotii ran three different engines in the first three races of the year, are long gone.

Hakkinen retires at the US Grand Prix this yearFor McLaren and Ferrari, the 2001 season should merely be an extension of 2000. Although both teams will obviously be looking for even faster pace, it will not come at the price of reliability. Both have established and settled engine development programmes, and both have cutting-edge chassis designs. One or both may gamble on a totally revolutionary design approach, although that seems unlikely. The stakes are just too high, and the corporate sponsors will not take kindly to the marked drop-off in results which normally earmarks a radical new innovation. Also, both teams have the confidence that they can gain that vital few tenths' advantage without resorting to desperate measures.

For the rest of the field, it remains a daunting task to dethrone either McLaren or Ferrari. Yet there are signs that closer, more competitive racing could soon be the norm. Glance back in recent history to other teams which have dominated in both pace and reliability, and two names spring immediately to mind - the late 1980's McLarens and early 1990's Williams. The McLarens were powered by Honda, whose association with BAR started to bear fruit this season. The Williams cars won with Renault, who are likewise back in the hunt with Benetton. It is surely only a matter of time before these two giants return to the top, with the same level or reliability, or even better, than they had before.

Ford's re-entry (via Jaguar) was a major disappointment this season. Yet they too have the pedigree and budget to compete with the very best, and time will see them returning to the winners' circle. Of all the recent manufacturers to join or re-join Formula One, BMW had the biggest learning curve to conquer. Their advantage is the partnership with Williams, renowned as the finest engineers in the pitlane. With dependable Ralf Schumacher and the potentially-explosive Juan Pablo Montoya for 2001, Williams BMW might just be the team to unseat the big two.

Add Toyota into the fray, and Formula One is set to enter a new era of unprecedented technological sophistication. With the amount of money being pumped in by major manufacturers, and the expected image returns on that investment, it will not suffice for teams to either have pace or reliability - they will be expected to have both, and in spades at that. No multi-million dollar sponsor wants to see their flagship engines spewing out smoke and scattering spare parts across the track, ask any senior Peugeot representative...

Which raises the question - will we soon witness a 'zero defect' season, in which one driver finishes every race in the points? It's happened before. Mike Hawthorn did it in 1953 and Fangio in 1954, but the season only consisted of eight rounds back then. In the modern era of fifteen or more races per season, Alain Prost (1988) and Eddie Irvine (1999) have come closest, both finishing all but two races in the points. Prost had two retirements, Irvine one retirement and one seventh position.

Looking at the statistics since the start of the 'Schumacher era' in 1994, a clear trend emerges. Taking the top four drivers in the Championship, their ratio of points-scoring finishes to race starts is as follows:

1994 is slightly skewed because of Schumacher's banning/disqualification from several races, and 1999 is likewise affected by Schumacher's enforced absence. Nevertheless, despite the odd dip and peak, it's clear that the top drivers are finishing more races in the points than they used to.

Development, production and testing facilities have become so advanced that teams can now almost preclude mechanical problems. Before the final two races of the 2000 season, both McLaren and Ferrari confidently claimed 'Both our cars will not break down for the rest of the season'. And both were right: the four cars ran flawlessly at Suzuka and Sepang.

Obviously, mechanical retirements will never be eliminated completely. But, in an increasingly highly-funded and precision technological arena like modern Formula One, blown engines and other components could become an increasing rarity. The top teams simply cannot afford it anymore.

Richard Barnes© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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